Exhibition preview: Ocean Liners - Speed and Style at V&A Dundee

The opening exhibition at the new V&A Dundee explores the design, style and technology of the great ocean-going liners of the 19th and 20th centuries, when many of the world's greatest ships were built in Scotland. By Susan Mansfield
SS France, which made its maiden voyage to New York City in 1962SS France, which made its maiden voyage to New York City in 1962
SS France, which made its maiden voyage to New York City in 1962

There is a scene in the film Titanic in which Kate Winslet descends the ornate wooden staircase to the first-class dining room, making her entrance in a black beaded dress and white gloves reaching past her elbows. It encapsulates the elegance and luxury of transatlantic travel in the age of the ocean liner.

Of course, we know how that story ends, but the era of the ocean liner sailed on, arguably becoming even more glamorous in the 1920s and 1930s when ships became the epitome of the new Art Deco style. Aristocrats such as the Duke of Windsor, who abdicated the throne in 1936, and his bride Wallis Simpson, became frequent transatlantic travellers, taking with them up to 100 pieces of luggage.

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Oceans Liners: Speed and Style is the first major exhibition to be devoted to the subject, and will be the first show at the V&A Dundee when it opens on 15 September. Shown at the V&A in London earlier this year, it was always planned with Dundee in mind, and will take on a new resonance in the country which built some of the world’s finest liners, including the Lusitania, Empress of Britain, Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth.

“The interesting thing about the exhibition is that we haven’t had to make a specific Scottish section to make it relevant to a Dundee audience,” says Sophie McKinlay, V&A Dundee’s director of programme. “It’s just an integral part of the story. It’s good that our first exhibition situates Scottish design in an international context.”

The new Kengo Kuma-designed building has a 1,100-square metre temporary exhibition space and will host international blockbuster shows as well as a permanent gallery focusing on Scottish design. McKinlay says: “This exhibition is a good way of introducing audiences to the various disciplines which can be covered under the umbrella of design, including fashion, architecture, product design and engineering. Scottish engineering is central to the exhibition, and there is a large section on ship-building on the Clyde.”

The story of the ocean liner is not just about style, it is also about technology: the inventors and engineers who came up with ways of making ships faster and safer, and the craftsmen who fashioned the iconic hulls. Paintings such as Stanley Spencer’s The Riveters, done on the Clyde in the 1940s, captures the graft and craftsmanship which went in to building some of the biggest moving objects ever made.

Countries which built ships competed in the race for speed and style, with liners becoming ambassadors for how modern and advanced a country had become. Ghislaine Wood, fellow in the V&A research department and a curator on Ocean Liners, says: “The ever-increasing demand for safety, comfort and speed ratcheted up the international competition between ship-building countries competing for an ever greater share of the market. But there was no part of the world that could compete with Scotland – at the end of the 19th century it was the biggest ship-building nation in the world.”

The early 20th century brought a demand for a new kind of travel. Until then, intercontinental travel had been regarded as difficult, sometimes dangerous, and was undertaken by those who had little choice: the servants of empire, or those emigrating in search of a better life. However, by the time the Titanic was launched in 1912, the demand for luxury travel was increasing. When the USA introduced quotas on immigrants in 1921, the shipping lines needed a new business model, and they found it in first class.

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Wood says: “From the 19th century on, this had a big impact on design. Shipping companies became more likely to employ professional designers on the interiors, copying the luxury hotels. That’s what they had to compete with, that level of service and of decoration. The exhibition is full of the hidden stories of designers and craftsmen who worked on these ships.”

Objects brought together from all over the world will evoke this new luxury, from tiling by leading Arts & Crafts ceramicist William De Morgan to luxury wallpapers emulating Spanish leather by Scots company Tynecastle, through to the Duke of Windsor’s monogrammed luggage and the wardrobe of New York socialite Emilie Grigsby, a frequent transatlantic traveller in the 1920s who kept herself kitted out in the latest Paris couture (her Lanvin flapper dress is a highlight). And there is a poignant survival story in the form of a Cartier tiara which belonged to Lady Marguerite Allan, a passenger on the Lusitania, sunk by a torpedo from a German U-boat in 1915 with the loss of nearly 1,200 lives. Lady Allan survived the disaster, but her two young daughters – in the children’s quarters on another part of the ship – were lost.

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While pre-First World War liners such as the Titanic and Lusitania were designed in a style of generic historic luxury, the interwar years brought the advent of modernity. While German ships such as the Bremen and Europa had the edge in terms of speed with their steam turbine engines, French ships took the prize for style, with the Normandie, launched in 1935, considered the finest Art Deco liner ever built. “The British felt they had to keep up, and the Queen Mary is Art Deco,” Wood says. “But it’s a very comfy-cosy art deco, rather than the extreme glamour of the Normandie there is marquetry emulating the English country house.”

The Queen Mary – now a tourist attraction in Long Beach, California – is one of the few liners from the golden age still afloat. The Normandie sank in 1942 while being refitted as a troop ship (as many liners were), but the Art Deco fittings had already been removed – a 5m gold lacquered panel from the ship’s smoking room by the artist Jean Dunand is included in the exhibition. A quick-thinking archivist saved treasures from the Canberra – including the panels painted for the ship’s nursery by Edward Ardizzone – before it was towed away to be scrapped in 1997. The QE2 is now a hotel in Dubai, though it is unclear how much of its original interior has been retained.

The Canberra, which launched in 1961, was the first ocean liner to include facilities for teenagers, with a “bar” designed by the young David Hockney, then a student at the RCA. Wood says: “It’s in a very graphic, almost graffiti, style, decorated with poker work where the designs were burned into the surface. I think the idea was that the young people would add to it with their cigarettes, but this was considered an enormous fire risk, and after its early voyages the bar was removed. We spent a long time looking for it, and we think it was destroyed, but at least we have a wonderful film of it in the exhibition.”

By 1969, when the QE2 was launched on the Clyde, the golden age of ocean liner travel was passing. The shipping lines could not compete with the increasing availability and affordability of air travel. However, as we fly transatlantic in economy class, we might permit ourselves a little nostalgia for the days of travelling at the stately speed of 31 knots, with plenty of time to enjoy all that undiluted luxury. ■

Ocean Liners: Speed and Style is at V&A Dundee, from 15 September until 24 February 2019